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Water shortages: a growing global crisis

One and a half years on and Cape Town, a South African city of more than four million people, has made it through one of the largest municipal water failures in modern history.

April 12, 2018 had been labelled “Day Zero”—the day Cape Town would run out of municipal water after experiencing the worst drought in a century and because of poor planning.

Its dam water storage capacity had not kept up with its huge population growth and tensions between political parties led to much needed funding being withheld.

The city, however, managed to stave off disaster through water conservation and efficiency measures, smarter use of data and some assistance from nature. High water tariffs and a ban on the use of municipal water for non-essential uses also helped.

It is now looking at desalination and groundwater extraction as ways to diversify its future water resources. But its water situation is still shaky.

A super water conscious city

Clifford Matheson, a videographer from Washington DC who visited the city in March, says he was politely asked by his hotel not to shower for more than two minutes.

“We noticed that the hotel bath plugs had been removed so we could not bath, which would use up much more water than a shower,” he says.

“I watched people from all walks of life arriving, whether in Mercedes, old trucks or on foot, to collect the free water at the Newlands springs.

“At an AirBnB, I was asked to fill a bucket while my shower heated up and to throw the water in the toilet or on the shrubs outside.

“Water restrictions are still in place. Swimming pools are empty and many homes in the posh suburbs now have big water tanks. Everyone is super water conscious.”

“The heavy water restrictions certainly taught most Capetonians to be respectful of water and to be more responsible about their futures,” says Donna Arden, a wellness coordinator who lives in the suburb of Milnerton.

“Capetonians pulled together. The water crisis gave us a reason to step up and to support each other. It opened our minds about the people who struggle to get water daily and about taking advantage of our natural resources. Even with the easing of the water restrictions, many people are still not bathing. Many use buckets in their showers and are conscious of how privileged they are to have water.”

A growing global crisis

Cape Town may have dodged a bullet, but it is not alone in its water woes.

In the Philippines, nine million people rely on unsafe and unsustainable water daily and in March this year, the taps ran dry for around five million residents in Metro Manila, thanks to dry weather and delays in building water infrastructure.

In 2017, the Philippines’ police identified 34 regional areas where people were killed due to conflicts over water rights, boundaries, use and sharing.

Water tensions are also being felt between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Egypt fears that a huge dam being built by Ethiopia on the Nile River will greatly reduce its water access and endanger its national security.

Water is also in short supply in China, particularly in its north. Alarmingly, 28,000 rivers and waterways have disappeared across the country over the past 25 years. And, water tables beneath major metropolitan areas like Beijing have rapidly dropped.

No wonder former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao warned in November that water shortages could threaten China’s economic growth, stability and rise as a superpower.

According to a 2017 report released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, around three in 10—or 2.1 billion—people worldwide lack access to safe, readily available water at home.

Also concerning, a 2015 United Nations report predicts that the world will only have 60 per cent of the water it needs by 2030 if politicians don’t start making big changes.

Even the “rainy” UK could suffer.

Recently, the head of its Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, warned that Britain could face severe water shortages by 2050 because of hotter and drier summers caused by climate change.

When shortages lead to violence and conflicts

Future water supplies are being affected by the collision of two powerful forces: strong population growth and a changing climate.

That’s the takeaway from a 2017 World Bank report, which says climate change will result in more erratic rainfall, leading to longer and deeper periods of droughts and floods.

Sadly, history shows that these are often followed by spikes in violence, civil war and even government changes. That’s because they increase poverty, especially in countries where agriculture is a key source of employment. And poverty means people have less to lose when participating in conflict.

At present, water tensions are simmering in Sudan, threatening to unravel a truce signed last year to end the country’s brutal five-year civil war. With infrastructure destroyed in the fighting, the government says nearly 80 per cent of the country has no access to clean water.

The shortages have sparked armed conflicts between several ethnic groups, with women being attacked as they make long treks to find water.

Early this year, US Air Force chief of staff General David Goldfein, appearing before a US Senate Armed Services Committee, cited the conflict in Syria as an example of how water shortages can destabilise a country.

“Most don’t remember what caused the Syria conflict to start. It started because of a 10-year drought,” he said, noting that the US often had to respond militarily to the aftermath of global climate change.

Work by the Pacific Institute suggests that the risks of water-related violence and conflict is growing, not diminishing, as populations and environmental pressures on scarce water resources increase.

“Many of these risks are materialising at the sub-national level rather than as disputes among nations, but even at the national level, there are growing concerns about tensions in Africa and parts of Asia that share international rivers but lack international agreements over how to manage those waters,” the Pacific Institute says.


About the author: Zilla Efrat writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world.

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